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Central Asia has moved on to the EU’s radar in recent years as NATO prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan. European policy-makers are aiming to create a stable security framework in the region, but this priority is threatening to undermine the EU's value driven foreign policy. Authoritarian regimes persist and neglected human rights records are undermining the EU's success in running a value driven foreign policy in Central Asia.  

When you find yourself travelling in Central Asia, the people you meet are very proud of the ancient civilizations that once spread across the region. With great excitement they point at old oases like Khiva and Merv along the Silk Road that used to connect Europe with Asia and fostered the first commercial and intellectual links between the Orient and the Occident. From these civilisations to fragmented political states; the breakup of the Soviet Union led to the creation of five independent nations of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, each struggling with different socio-economic and security challenges. 

EU interests in Central Asia

European engagement in Central Asia has traditionally been conducted through those individual member states that enjoyed good relations with their regional partner countries. In 2007, the European Council adopted the “EU Strategy for Central Asia”, enabling the empowered European External Action Service to advocate and act on multifaceted policy objectives. In reality they did this in no cohesive way.

map_central_asia
Photo: Google maps (fair usage)
Map of Central Asia

Current EU policy can be seen through three key strands of activity. First, being above all a normative power, the EU seeks to emphasise democratic values, human rights and provide crucial development assistance in Central Asia.

Second, the upcoming withdrawal of international security forces from Afghanistan and the feared spill-over effects of reviving extremist forces plus transnational crime require NATO/EU member states to strive to establish a stable environment. EU programmes are specifically focusing on border securitisation and anti-drug trafficking efforts, prioritising the construction of border posts, equipping and training border guards, and on performing combined exercises with neighbouring countries.

Finally, the EU is pursuing an energy diversification plan by exploiting rich oil and gas reserves in Central Asia that have yet to be developed. Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are of particular interest in that regard.

Russia and China are investors without inconveniently high moral expectations.

The EU faces serious obstacles when fulfilling these diverse and less than complimentary objectives. While security cooperation is intended to foster inter-state dialogue, providing security assistance in countries where individual rights are largely neglected runs contrary to the goal of fostering democratic reforms. 

It is also questionable if European countries, being positioned as a potential energy consumer, would be willing to fiercely call on oil and gas producing countries to step up their reform efforts given that Russia and China are keen to expand their energy projects; they are investors without inconveniently high moral expectations. Yet it is in finding the right balance between the three factors that will achieve sustainable development in the region.

Next page: The reality of EU development work in Central Asia...

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